What Does the New Regenerative Organic Certification Mean for the Future of Good Food?
Several new labels introduced last week seek to move beyond USDA organic. Can they shore up sustainable practices, or will they sow consumer confusion?
Organic is not enough. Or that’s the thinking behind the new Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) that was officially launched at the Natural Products Expo West trade show last week. The Regenerative Organic Alliance, a coalition of organizations and businesses led by the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s, have joined the seemingly unstoppable engine propelling sustainable agriculture beyond the term “organic,” or, as some believe, bringing it back to its original meaning.
“[The USDA] Organic [label] is super important—thank goodness it was put into play,” says Birgit Cameron, senior director of Patagonia Provisions, an arm of Patagonia that aims to solve environmental issues by supporting climate-friendly food producers. “The ROC is absolutely never meant to replace it, but rather to keep it strong to the original intention.”
Like other newly proposed certifications—including the “The Real Organic Project,” which was also announced last week—one of the Alliance’s primary goals is to require growers to focus on soil health and carbon sequestration. But, as Cameron explains, it is also an attempt to be a “north star” for the industry as a certification that encompasses the health of the planet, animal welfare, and social fairness.
As producers move up through its tier system (bronze, silver, and gold) they will eventually set an even “higher bar” than any other labels offered right now. According to Jeff Moyer, executive director of the Rodale Institute, this built-in incentive to constantly improve on-farm practices is something the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic requirements lack.
“When you play with the federal government, you have to give up some things,” Moyer says. “Organic is a fairly static standard … once you become certified you’re in the club and there’s no incentive to move beyond that.”
Mechanics of a New Regenerative Label
There are still nuances that need to be worked out, but, as it stands now, USDA organic certification (or an international equivalent) is a baseline requirement for ROC certification—a company or farm must at least be USDA Organic certified to earn the ROC label. However, the Alliance—instead of the USDA—will oversee ROC certification. ROC-certified producers must also meet the requirements of one of the existing certifications for animal welfare and social fairness, such as Animal-Welfare Approved or Fair Trade Certified.
And the Alliance’s goal is that ROC will be enforced through the same third-party certifier with whom producers are already working, such as Oregon Tilth or CCOF. Proponents say that requirements will be regularly reevaluated and updated as new practices emerge, and that in this way, it will be a living document.
USDA organic requirements are also meant to be updated through the National Organic Standards Boards (NOSB), a group of farmers, industry reps, and scientists that meets twice yearly in a public setting to discuss and vote on recommendations for the National Organic Program.
The Alliance is part of a growing group of activists and producers disillusioned with the NOSB’s decisions last year to allow soil-free crops–such as those grown using hydroponics–to qualify as certified organic and the withdrawal of a rule that required improvements in animal welfare.
Many view the co-opting of the word “organic” by large corporations and mono-crop farms as more evidence of the label’s erosion. They also worry about the influx of fraudulent organic food being imported into the country. And the fact that the current USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have both moved away from many of the values embraced by the organic movement in the last year seems to be spurring this new movement along.
The groups behind these labels are also slowly introducing the term “regenerative” to the mainstream. While there is not yet one official definition of the term, Kevin Boyer, project director at the newly established Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, an education and grant-making organization, summed regenerative ag up as “any system of agriculture that continuously improves the cycles on which it relies, including the human community, the biological community, and the economic community.”
Boyer says he knows of at least four other regenerative labels that are currently in the works, but ROC is the farthest along. (Not all will use organic certification as a baseline.) This influx of new standards contributes to the urgency the Alliance feels to get out in front of the crowd.
“The more popular it gets, the more vulnerable it is to having someone who is not part of the regenerative agriculture community come in and use it,” says Boyer.
Last year, the Alliance held a public comment period facilitated by NSF International, a certifier with whom they have an established relationship. The certification has also gone through two revisions so far, but the Alliance deliberately chose not to pass it through a large committee of reviewers. Instead, they want to “put a stake in the ground” now by presenting it to the public.
Despite goals that are broadly supported by many people in the sustainable agriculture community, ROC has garnered skepticism among those who believe it is working in a vacuum and further confusing a marketplace where consumers are already overwhelmed by an abundance of third-party labels such as Non-GMO and Rainforest Alliance Certified.
“I think ROC did a really beautiful job in addressing all the things that regenerative agriculture is supposed to care about, but it has to be a conversation with the whole community and built in a way that truly promotes the inclusion the movement has had since the very beginning,” says Boyer.
Adding Confusion in a Crowded Marketplace?
Bob Scowcroft, the retired executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and a 35-year activist and leader in the organic farming movement, also has concerns about splintering support for organic food. At the Ecological Farming Conference in January, he was dismayed to hear a panel of ROC underwriters tell an audience of successful organic farmers, some of whom undoubtedly spent thousands of dollars on USDA organic certification, that it wasn’t enough.
“I try to remind people … organic is only 4.8 percent of the food economy,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of the economy is still sprayed [with synthetic pesticides] or [made up of] CAFOs, so we’re going to shred each other? We can only afford to do that when organic is 45 percent of the economy.”
Scowcroft welcomes a “certain amount of agitation” within the umbrella of sustainable agriculture and believes that everything can be improved, but he says adding yet another label into the mix—especially one that is wrapped up in a strong marketing platform instead of extensive research—might not make any significant improvements.
“Regenerative agriculture is probably the 262nd term for organic. We really don’t want to do this again,” said Scowcroft.
Rather, he would like to see more energy and faith put into the systems that are already established. He points to the increased awareness within the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service about cover crops and soil runoff as evidence of the shared value for some “regenerative” requirements. And he supports more research on soil fertility, carbon sequestration, crop rotation, and perennial grasses.
As Scowcroft sees it, the finish line of the “30-year march” toward a better food system isn’t even close to being crossed, but there are many important placeholders that have already been set. Programs like the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grants have ushered in tremendous positive changes, he says, asking why anyone would want to give up on a system that is still malleable and able to get even stronger.
“The model is already there to bring that language to the National Organic Standard Board to further the conversation on eventual improvement,” Scowcroft says. “There shouldn’t be anything stopping anybody from doing that.”
For other good food advocates, however, the NOSB’s recent decision not to ban hydroponic operations from organic certification was just the latest example of the fact that the board itself is now composed of a number of representatives of large corporations that would like to see the standards further watered down.
“Some folks fought so long and hard to get [federal organic standards] only to see these things trying to displace them,” says Boyer. “I credit the organic movement for creating an atmosphere that even allows this conversation. But, especially here in California, you don’t have to drive very far to see an organic farm that is not fulfilling the ideal organic vision.”
Some ranchers, like Julie Morris of Morris Grassfed Beef in California’s San Benito County, say the organic label has never worked for her family’s operation. Unlike ROC, Morris says the original organic standards were written for fruit and vegetable growers and did not take adequately into account livestock practices. Morris Grassfed’s pastures are certified organic, but their beef is not because they work with smaller butchers who can’t always afford certification.
On the other hand, Morris is excited about the coming wave of regenerative standards because, she believes it will consider more of the practices she and her husband already use on their land, with their animals and their employees. For years they have been “first-person certified”—a term Morris uses to describe how they earn customers’ loyalty by showing them first-hand how they run their ranch. But, as more people seek out these kinds of products she says those direct connections don’t always happen.
“Consumers want to know that we nurture the earth, raise our animals humanely, and pay our workers fairly,” she said. “We will now have a chance to share that and be transparent.”
In the meantime, the Alliance hopes that farmers will also choose to get on board because of the potential market pull and additional premium they could receive for something with the ROC stamp. As Cameron explains, the Alliance is counting on the fact that a significant portion of consumers are already searching for something that exceeds organic.
At this point, however, any premiums are speculative. The Alliance is still in the process of deciding whether the label will be consumer-facing or will just come into play in business-to-business interactions. Patagonia, for example, could say they will only buy cotton from farms that are regenerative organic certified, which would be a boon to the farmers, but not much of a step toward educating the public.
“[Producers] may or may not advertise to consumers,” says Moyer. “If the market says ‘this is confusing me,’ they might not.”
Like Morris, Loren Poncia, rancher and owner of Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin County, California, is intrigued by the possibility that this one certification could help consolidate several of the certifications he already earns. And since his pastures are already certified organic and part of the Global Animal Partnership, Stemple Creek might be a prime contender for ROC. But it will also depend on how laborious the certification process is. It’s a challenge, Poncia says, to manage the ranch, the business, and also keep up with all the certifications.
“Unless customers are coming to me and asking, ‘Are you certified by this?’ it’s probably not going to motivate me to get another certification,” he says.
Another sticking point for some people is the question of specific practices versus outcomes. Right now, ROC, like other certifications, is primarily practice-based rather than measuring specific data-driven outcomes. At first glance, focusing on practices might help regulate the methods (i.e., inputs, tillage, irrigation) a farmer or rancher might employ and get them to their goal more quickly. But Boyer from the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation argues that the opposite tends to happen. He says that a practice-based standard restricts farmers by telling them what they can and cannot do instead of fostering innovation.
“A lot of people are good at ticking the boxes, but nothing new comes out of that,” Boyer says. “That doesn’t grow the movement.”
On the other hand, an outcomes-based standard encourages farmers to “employ their creativity.” It makes loopholes less appealing because there is more freedom for farmers to utilize practices that are specific to their operations and, therefore, more successful.
One thing that everyone agrees on is that the Alliance has more work to do. The next step is to run pilot programs with interested farmers—many of whom are already on their way to reaching the standards.